Nearly five years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan's security situation continues to be dragged down by endemic corruption, roving militias, and a growing nexus between narco-warlords and remnants of the Taliban, officials and analysts say.
The melting snows of spring often bring an uptick in violence, as rebels emerge from their mountain redoubts. Yet there are indications of a deepening instability beyond the seasonal surge. More than 70 foreign troops, mostly Americans, have been killed this past year, making it the deadliest period since the conflict began. Violence, meanwhile, seems to be spreading beyond the volatile south, encroaching on areas formerly considered outside the zones of conflict.
"What is often labeled as Taliban violence is not," says Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "It's a whole set of fluid alliances, cross- border attacks from Pakistan, drugs, tribal feuds, and of course the Taliban."
What these security issues have in common, she and others say, is the poor governance and official corruption among provincial governors, police chiefs, and others tasked with securing the country and bringing development. The implication: Stabilizing the country increasingly means providing better government.
"The state we're in now is because of the policy decision to co-opt those people who in the past committed human rights abuses. There's a culture of impunity. They continue in many cases to abuse the rights of people under them," says Ms. Nathan, adding that this not only causes violent flare-ups, but creates sympathy for the Taliban. These troubles, she says, are by no means limited to the south. "There are drug problems in the north, tribal problems, sheer criminality."
In the past, violence rarely spilled beyond the south, where NATO troops are slowly replacing US forces. But recent attacks have cropped up in the north and west, too:
• Rockets slammed into a nongovernmental organization and a house in the northeastern province of Badakhshan on Tuesday when militants protesting poppy eradication missed a police station. No casualties were reported.
• Also on Tuesday, two bomb blasts along the road to Kabul's airport wounded three people. That followed a powerful rocket attack near the US Embassy and the presidential palace on April 19, wounding one Afghan security contractor.
• Bomb blasts were reported Saturday outside a politician's home 30 miles west of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
• And the prosperous western province of Herat, once considered a model of stability, was rocked by a suicide bombing in early April, killing two Afghans outside a NATO compound.
"We do have a problem in the south, but it is spreading north. The path for these activities in the north has already formed," says Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal, the former deputy minister of the Interior Ministry, and now a member of parliament.
Many governors and chiefs of police, rather than confronting the Taliban and neutralizing drug lords, are increasingly intertwined with them, either for political or monetary gain, some analysts say. Amid the lawlessness, military intelligence has become a political game, a tool for blackmail or settling old scores, analysts allege.
President Hamid Karzai has replaced or re-assigned a number of governors in an effort to tackle these problems, which have plagued Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Badsha Khan, for example, once the governor of Paktia Province, was removed in 2002 amid allegations of corruption and passing information to US forces that led to the bombing of his political enemies.
In the northern Balkh Province, Gov. Atta Mohammad Nur sacked several officials this February for their alleged involvement in the drug trade, including the district government head, the chief of police, the chief of security, the chief of staff, and the prosecutor.
But many such types remain. "There is probably no smoking gun, and it might be not be easy to present [a] case before a court," says one Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But the names of quite a few of these people are well known."
Government officials insist they are cracking down, but Kabul's writ is still weak in many places. Even the more sanguine government officials, when speaking off the record, say that collusion between governors and the Taliban has hampered counterterrorism. Many villagers have little incentive to cooperate, officials say, when they see their government representatives siding with the enemy.
More than breeding resentment, corruption is playing into the hands of the Taliban.
"[P]eople had the expectation that the government would do something for them, that their lives would improve. But it didn't happen," says Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander who is now a member of Parliament. "When people get disappointed, it benefits the Taliban."
Others agree, saying that such widespread corruption and lawlessness was what brought the Taliban to power in the first place in 1995.
Remedies, such as there are, include more concerted efforts to disarm illegal militias. So far, some 60,000 people have been disarmed under a UN initiative, but many observers say greater resources and political will need to be put toward this effort. The arrival of NATO troops in the south might also bolster security, provided that such an effort is coupled with serious commitments to governance and nation-building.